Book Reviews August 2018:
Today marks the last day of August which means book reviews for you. In this group of August reads, I found two new-to-me authors that I’m adding to my list of all-time favorites.
I read tales of historical war-time fiction, a classic barnyard fable, shenanigans set in a Louisiana swamp, a weighty tragedy in a Swedish hockey town. Such a rich collection here!
In no particular order…
The Alice Network
by Kate Quinn
The Alice Network alternates between two perspectives (which seems to be a popular novel structure these days). In 1915, we meet Eve Gardiner, a spunky, brave young woman recruited as a spy in the Alice Network. This portion of the tale is based on the real story of WWI spy, Alice Dubois. In 1947, we meet young American socialite, Charlie St. Clair. Charlie is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being disowned by her snooty family. While Charlie’s mother escorts her to Europe to “take care of her little problem,” Charlie breaks free and runs away to London in search of her favorite cousin who disappeared during WWII. Charlie’s only lead in her cousin’s disappearance is a London address. Eve Gardiner’s address. Eve, now a war-hardened, gun-toting, mean alcoholic, together with her Scottish butler, join Charlie in a journey that turns out to be life-changing for the entire motley trio.
The story is compelling even with the back and forth chapter hopping. The portions about espionage were downright riveting. Eventually the storylines connect—although, for me, jumping from POV to POV deflated the immediate telling of it. Still, I highly recommend it especially if you are a fan of historical fiction.
This book made me: think about all the untold war stories and the roles women played.
My favorite line: There are two kinds of flowers when it comes to women. The kind that sit safe in a beautiful vase, or the kind that survive in any conditions…even in evil.
by Peter Matthiessen
In 1996, a group gathers at a former death camp to meditate, pray, bear witness to the atrocities that happened there. Led by a Zen master, the group, including Clements Olin, an American scholar descended from Polish aristocracy, faces its own truths. This book is eloquently written, difficult to read in part because of the topic, at times tedious for me, exhausting even, but as I continued reading the story itself became a memorial to the horrors of the Holocaust. The book raises thoughtful, haunting questions. Probably not for everyone.
This book reminded me that soon we will have no more first-hand witnesses to the horrors of Auschwitz.
My favorite line: We must help the living while we can, since the dead have no more need of us.
The Only World You Get:
by Dennis Vannatta
What an absolute terrific collection of short stories about real people living the only lives they get. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Arkansas Delta. Maybe it’s the rural connection, the “been there done that” commonality, but I felt I knew the characters Dennis Vannatta brought to life in the ten stories contained within The Only World You Get. Filled with dry humor and spot-on southern colloquialism, Vannatta takes regular, everyday situations and shines a light on humanity, heart, flaws, warts and all. This is one of the best books I’ve read in some time. Do yourself a favor and buy it today.
This book made me: shake my head and wonder why this author’s name—Dennis Vannatta—isn’t on the tip of everyone’s tongue. For real!
Favorite Line: These farmers get serious about their equipment. Back in high school I’d seen fights between John Deere kids and I. H. kids. A city person would think it was a strange thing, I guess, but everybody’s got something.
by Fredrik Bachman
Whoa. Fredrick Bachman (author of A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry) takes on a weighty topic with Beartown. The book started slowly for me, with pages and pages describing hockey and the small forest town obsessed with it. I’m so glad I stuck with it. What happens when an entire small town pins its hopes and dreams on the junior ice hockey team—soon to compete in the national semi-finals—and the star player commits a crime against a girl at the school? Folks pick sides, the town becomes torn apart, the girl for the most part is pegged a liar and attention-seeker. Beartown is much more than a story about sports. It’s a story about society and the inflated importance we place on athletics and winning at all costs. It’s about speaking up and saying no.
This book reminded me of the warped priorities in this world.
My favorite line: Everyone has a thousand wishes before a tragedy, but just one afterward.
by Ken Wells
This book has been in my collection of first signed editions for a decade or more. Finally, I picked it up. HILARIOUS. Junior’s Leg is the sequel in a series I’ve not read, but it didn’t matter. It stands alone with no problem. Protagonist Junior Guidry is a broke-down, worn-out, drunk-off-his-ass, one-legged, oil rig accident survivor who lives in a nasty trailer so close to a swamp in the Catahoula Parish that water moccasins swim beneath it. After the gnarly work accident, he received a nice legal settlement which he promptly squandered on blackjack, booze, and a string of women. Now, he depends on a “podnah” to deliver his monthly stipend of whiskey along with his disability check.
When Mary Iris Parfait (what a name!) enters his life by literally stepping into his trailer to hide from her own demons, what’s left of Junior’s life takes a positive turn from the quagmire in which he wallows. But not without a redemptive lesson in what goes around comes around. Puredee fun.
This book sharpened my Cajun vocabulary.
My favorite lines: Ghost or robber, I just laid there on the sofa watchin’ her come. Either one could cut my sorry throat and what could I do about it? Shuh, nuttin’. If she’s gonna cut my throat, I hope she’s got a sharp knife.
I listened to Animal Farm one afternoon while scraping and painting trim at our rental property. I’d not “read” the book since high school. Written in 1946, today Animal Farm is considered one of the most important politically satirical works of modern time. With barnyard animals, Orwell provides commentary on socialism, societal tendency, and abuse of power. For such a simple, fairy-tale-like novella, the timeless message rings loudly today. A must-read (and a re-read) for members of any free-thinking society.
This book reminded me of the importance of re-reading classics. While the words never change, as we grow (ahem) more mature, we bring different versions of ourselves to the story.
My favorite lines: All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
Summer reading is a wrap. On to September!
Grace Grits and Gardening
Farm. Food. Garden. Life.
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Matyas Seiber: music from Animal Farm